There is so much advice out there about training your dog that it can be overwhelming to even get started! If you Google “How to train a dog” you’ll get 502,000,000 hits (and that number just keeps growing). So why do I believe that positive dog training is better, and why do I hope it’s the method you choose for you dog?
In this post we’ll cover:
- What positive dog training actually is
- What operant conditioning is and how your dog learns
- Why I dislike balanced and aversive training
- Applying the principles: an easy way to understand why positive dog training is better
What is positive reinforcement dog training?
All dog training uses principles of conditioning.
If you want to train your dog the best place is start is understanding HOW training methods actually work. I’d suggest reading this article on how dogs learn. It will allow you to fully understand the training methods you read about on Google, and decide which training method you prefer.
Read it? Great! Let’s move on.
One form of conditioning is called operant conditioning. This sounds intimidating, but it just means learning by consequence. “Consequence” can either be a good or bad thing that happens to that dog. Dogs do things that work out well for them, and stop doing things that don’t.
If a dogs behavior has an enjoyable consequence they will want to repeat it. An example is when you ask your dog to sit and then give him a treat when he does.
Dog: I put my butt on the ground and I got a tasty! I love tasties! I will put my butt on the ground more often!
If a dogs behavior has an unpleasant consequence it will happen less often. An example would be jerking on your dogs collar when they walk in front of your rather than heeling.
Dog: When I walked in front my neck hurt. I don’t like my neck hurting. I won’t walk in front next time.
Positive reinforcement dog training mainly uses the enjoyable consequence method to teach your dog. When they do something you like, you give a reward (treats, toys, play, praise, or anything else your dog loves). This reinforces the likelihood that they will repeat it. The better the reward, the more likely they are to repeat it.
Think of it this way:
If your parents gave you $10 or took you for ice cream when you got an A on your report card, you’d be motivated to repeat that, right?
Giving your dog a treat when they learn to sit is the same thing.
Positive training involves teaching the dog to make the right choice by rewarding what we like. Discipline is still used (voice, lack of attention, time outs, etc) to communicate what we dislike, but physical corrections are not used. I’m not against saying no to your dog or teaching boundaries, but they should hear “yes” MUCH more often than “no”.
Why I dislike the term “balanced training”
I fully agree that there are many effective ways to train your dog, so there isn’t just “one right approach”. However, NO training method should use fear, pain, or intimidation as a technique.
Balanced training sounds like a great thing, and it is marketed that way. “Balance” sounds like a good thing….. right?
However, balanced dog training often uses positive reinforcement along with physical punishment and/or physical corrections or aversive tools. As soon as your remove the force-free theory of positive training physical consequences naturally increase. This can be highly stressful (and even painful or scary) for your dog.
Leash jerks, choke & prong collars, or electric shock might suppress a behavior you dislike in that moment, but they haven’t actually taught your dog what they SHOULD do.
I look at aversive techniques like a band-aid. They may cover the problem for now, but band-aids always fall off.
Balanced training is often based on a dog needing to be “put in it’s place”.
Spoiler alert: they don’t.
The dominance theory in dogs has been completely debunked, and should never be used. Unfortunately, alpha theory became such a prevalent concept that it remains difficult to change some people’s minds (even other dog trainers).
If you can train a dog just as well or even better with rewards rather than discomfort or pain, why wouldn’t you choose the positive option?
Applying the principles: An easy way to understand why positive dog training is better
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why something is wrong until it happens to us. We get so used to a concept or technique being “normal” that we never ask if it’s cruel.
Let’s use an example where I show two very different ways of teaching you the same thing. Which way would you prefer to learn? Can you understand afterwards why positive dog training is better and less stressful for your dog?
Example 1: Aversive punishment based training:
Let’s say that you and I are going for dinner. You need to learn my favorite food for an upcoming event.
You’ve never dined with me before and have no idea what food I even like.
Instead of telling you what my favorite food is I decide we should play a game so you can learn what I like.
I ask you to guess what item on the menu is my favorite food.
You look down at the massive menu and have no idea. Oh well! You guess spaghetti?
Nope, I hate spaghetti.
All of a sudden I bring out a electric prod and zap you in the neck for guessing wrong. You feel scared and don’t know what to think.
We continue the game and I ask you to guess again.
You don’t have a choice but to try again…. I’m expecting you to learn what my favorite food is!
You try to guess better to avoid pain. I didn’t like spaghetti so maybe I don’t like noodles?
You guess that steak is my favorite….
Nope, wrong! Since you’ve got it incorrect a second time I zap you a little harder.
How many wrong guesses would be required before you shut down and are too scared to try again?
If finally guess burgers right on the 7th try and I reward you with a bite of cake, did you enjoy our game? Would you want to play again?
This is exactly what using a shock collar to train your dog is like. You haven’t taught them what you want, yet you punish wrong tries.
Example 2: Positive dog training:
The scenario starts the same way.
You and I are going for dinner. You need to learn my favorite food for an upcoming event.
You’ve never dined with me before and have no idea what food I even like.
Instead of telling you my favorite food is I decide we should play a game so you can learn what I like.
I ask you to guess what item is my favorite on the menu.
When you look at the menu this time, it looks a little different.
The only option on the menu is a burger.
You guess burger, and I reward you for being correct with a bite of cake.
Another menu comes out, and this time it shows either a burger or spaghetti.
You already know burger is the right choice, so you guess that.
Another piece of cake!
We can continue to progress your learning until the menu is exactly the same size as example 1, but in this scenario you’d know exactly which item to pick because we’ve practiced progressively more difficult scenarios.
What a weird but enjoyable game!
Which version would you rather play?
Can you guess which one your dog likes better?
This is exactly why positive dog training is better.
Dogs do not need to get the answer wrong to figure out what you do want.
By setting them up for success and making the learning enjoyable they will continue to want to learn from you.
There are many misunderstandings about positive training such as positive training being permissive. This isn’t true! Boundaries and expectations are still set with your dog. However, what you dislike is communicated to your dog via sound, lack of engagement, time outs, or withholding a reward. Positive training does not include physical corrections.
A basic way of thinking about is:
If you wouldn’t do it to your toddler, don’t do it to your dog.
I believe training should be positive time spent between dog and owner that actually deepens rather than destroying your bond.
With positive training you’ll get both an amazingly well trained dog and a best friend.
Happy training! 🙂
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